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June 09, 2021 Columns

Introduction to Family Law Quarterly, Volume 54, Number 3

Samuel V. Schoonmaker IV

Family Law During COVID-19: Virtual Hearings, Family Court Proceedings, and the Future

This issue of the Family Law Quarterly developed unexpectedly during a horrible year. Few had heard of COVID on New Year’s Day, but by March, the pandemic had completely upended courts in the United States and throughout the world. Contagious disease almost entirely shuttered the family court systems in some states, hobbled courts in other states, and created an enormous backlog of unresolved, festering disputes. At the time of publication, the full duration and scope of the catastrophe remains unknowable.

Disaster spurred reform. The first article in this issue, Observing Online Courts: Lessons from the Pandemic, is authored by Professor Elizabeth G. Thornburg. It is a significant, empirical study of virtual court proceedings conducted in Texas civil and family courts during May and June of 2020. The article carefully documents hearings that range from uncontested matters to fully contested evidentiary proceedings. This practical piece discusses topics such as how judges and litigants overcame technical difficulties that complicated online proceedings. It shows the promise of virtual hearings as a permanent feature of the family court system. The article’s blend of practicality, empirical research, and exceptional scholarship will make it an enduring and impactful piece.

The second article implicitly challenges some of the reasoning in the first article, and yet it follows different paths to reach several of the same conclusions. Our Virtual Reality: Facing the Constitutional Dimensions of Virtual Family Court considers the tension between open courts and privacy, identifies challenges for a fact-finder in assessing demeanor and credibility, discusses the digital divide and its implications for access to justice, addresses due process issues, and predicts how virtual proceedings will become part of family law practice in the future. The article is authored by the former Chief Administrative Judge for Connecticut’s Family Division, Lynda B. Munro, and attorney Nicole Riel. The article provides compelling analysis from a retired judge who, less than a decade ago, introduced substantial innovations to her own state’s family court system.

The Effect of COVID-19 on International Child Abduction Cases explores the most difficult and highest conflict cases one could imagine during a global pandemic. Robert G. Spector and Melissa A. Kucinski analyze the extraordinary challenges in child abduction cases during a time of border closures, courthouse disruption, and health risks. The pandemic frustrated parties at the time they tried to commence cases, and it impacted courts when they attempted to apply treaty provisions and order the return of minor children. The article also addresses the efficacy of virtual hearings, which already were prevalent in international child abduction cases before the pandemic.

Samuel V. Schoonmaker IV
May 2021

Issue Editor
Editorial Board member, Family Law Quarterly
Schoonmaker Legal Group, LLC, Stamford, Connecticut
[email protected]

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Samuel V. Schoonmaker IV